Gabby Petito died of strangulation. And while her case has opened a national conversation about domestic violence, experts hope the tragedy will highlight a serious danger: the potential strangulation in domestic violence.
Strangulation is defined as killing someone by squeezing their throat. But a growing number of domestic violence experts believe the term should be used more loosely to apply to situations where the incident is not fatal.
“When journalists correctly use the term ‘strangulation’, they increase the public’s familiarity with a specific form of abuse and recognize the serious short and long term consequences of this type of violence,” according to a media guide by Jane Doe Inc., The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.
Assaults that seek to deprive someone of oxygen are more common than most people realize, experts say. A woman who has been assaulted in this way by a partner has a seven-fold risk of being murdered by that partner, according to Dr. Eve Valera, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who studies intimate partner violence and brain damage.
“This is one of the scariest experiences women tend to report in situations of domestic violence,” said Valera. “It’s really about power and control… It’s kind of like saying, ‘I can take your life anytime.'”
Petito’s death was deemed a homicide last month; On Tuesday, a coroner clarified that the cause of death was a strangulation. The vlogger’s video diary of her life on the road with boyfriend Brian Laundrie gained worldwide attention following her disappearance in late August in Wyoming.
The laundry has since also disappeared. Police and the FBI, citing earlier reports of possible domestic violence while the two were traveling together, named him a “person of interest” in the case. He has not been charged with his murder.
“Sadly, this is just one of the many deaths in the country of people involved in domestic violence, and it is unfortunate that these other deaths have not been as covered as this one,” said Tuesday. Teton County Coroner, Dr. Brent Blue.
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While it’s impossible to know for sure that Laundrie had anything to do with Petito’s murder, there were red flags regarding violence in the relationship, Valera said.
While the couple were in Utah, the Grand County Sheriff’s Office called 911 on August 12 in which the appellant said he witnessed “the gentleman slapping the girl.”
Body camera video showed Petito in tears during a police stop on the side of a highway. The footage shows a police officer speaking with Laundrie, who said friction had built up between the two for several days, although authorities at the scene took no further action than telling the couple to go their separate ways for the night.
Experts in intimate partner violence say there needs to be greater awareness of potential strangulation risks. Leigh Goodmark, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law where she teaches at the Gender Violence Clinic, said one way to take the problem more seriously is to differentiate between “choking” and “strangling” .
Some victims of domestic violence may report that they have been “choked” because they believe the “strangulation” must be fatal or involve an object such as a rope or other restraint, noted Valera. This may cause law enforcement and other actors in the justice system to take the incident less seriously.
Choking is what you do with food, Goodmark said. “Strangulation” in the context of the discussion of domestic violence is when a person uses their hands, another part of the body, or an object to compress another person’s airways and restrict the flow of oxygen – fatally. or not.
“When people say ‘choking’ it really minimizes the amount of damage done by the strangulation and the intentionality of it,” Goodmark said.
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In non-fatal cases, the strangulation can lead to a number of symptoms, including hoarseness, shortness of breath, memory loss, loss of consciousness, and even brain damage. Valera’s research indicated that brain damage in domestic violence cases is not uncommon.
“There are probably more women who have experienced repetitive, or at least unique, but likely mild traumatic brain injuries from their partners than professional athletes,” said Valera.
But the evidence of strangulation is not always visible; experts say strangulation can even lead to death without leaving any external traces on the body. This is why more education on the prevention of strangulation and intimate partner violence is needed.
“It’s so stigmatized that people don’t want to admit it,” said Valera, stressing the need for communities to be aware of the risks.
According to Goodmark, more people need to be aware that a single case of potential intimate partner strangulation is a huge red flag for future homicide.
“We really need to focus on prevention and education on what it means to experience the throttle in terms of future risk,” Goodmark said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, intimate partner violence – and its severity – has “skyrocketed,” Valera said. This means that cases of women being strangled by their partners have certainly increased, Valera said. She said we should watch each other because intimate partner violence can happen without anyone noticing.
“It’s always good to open the conversation, ‘I know COVID has made things very stressful and bad for a lot of families and people. Do you feel safe in your relationship, is everything okay? ? ‘”, Valera said.